Just Some Pieces Of Cheap White Plastic

I sometimes leave the house. There are so many people plugged in to headphones these days that it makes me wonder a few things. Other than asking whether they are listening to anything at all, or just blocking out the direct attentions of the world with a couple of pieces of cheap white plastic.

The main thing I wonder is what they are listening to and how they acquire music. Always one for the logistics, me. I am a music fan, and I obsess ever so slightly about the music I have about my person, and my ability to access it. I have a large CD collection, stored at my mother’s house, which I have ripped on to the hard drive sitting next to me right now. I also buy digital music from Amazon.

I tend to view myself as a freak in this regard – that having such a thirst for music, that having such a huge collection of music, that having a taste in music which ebbs and flows with time, is not exactly representative of the population as a whole. I wonder whether people are listening to podcasts or music; I wonder whether they bought their music digitally or ripped a CD; I wonder if they listen to the same music they always have, whatever music is currently popular or something else altogether.

On my playlist at any given time you will find the rings of an ancient tree, able to be read: I have a few songs I have been listening to since they were first released; I have a lot of music I have fallen upon in the last five to ten years; I have a great deal of music I heard for the first time this year.

I once had a friend who told me that if I were to skip a song in my music collection that I should just delete it from the collection, as it clearly had no place being there. That is far too absolutist a view of musical enjoyment. If I skip a song it means I am not in the mood for it at that given moment. Wait five minutes and I might be in the mood for it. Wait five years and you stand a far better chance.

As I have stated elsewhere I get in to bands, not genres; however my taste is best categorised as a mixture of rock and metal. Then again there are also a few excursions in to the worlds of pop, hip-hop and electronica in there. No country, no jazz, no blues; there are plenty of exceptions to all of those supposed rules. I get the impression that some people only listen to one kind of music: as a for instance, the people who only hear the music played on Radio 1. I would find that very limiting.

The two key drivers of change in the music I listen to are curiosity and my embarrassment. Second things first, I suppose: it happens that I am flicking through the songs on my phone, and I feel a surge of embarrassment when a song comes on. It is either that I shudder at the thought of a younger me listening to that music and getting excited by it or – less frequently – that I feel judged by others for listening to it. The latter usually applies to Coldplay, classical music or anything recognisable.

Either way, I get tired of the music I am listening to fairly frequently. So much so that even the music I have been listening to for years will fall by the wayside. That way I have a “favourite band of all time” for around a decade at a time. So far that has been Queen, The Wildhearts, Nine Inch Nails and Paradise Lost. There has been a degree of overlapping across certain decades along the way.

When a band I have been deeply devoted to for a long time begins to fall out of my aural favour I begin to feel embarrassment when they show up on my playlists. This can last for a few minutes, a few weeks or the best part of a decade. It feeds very much in to my other key musical driver.

Just as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence there is always something new to wrap my willing ears around and get listening to. Curiosity can lead me down some dark avenues, musically speaking. Currently I am finding myself listening avidly to Greek and Norwegian Black Metal, hearing tales of Satan and Orcs being screamed at me, often backed by choir and orchestra.

Embarrassment clears music out of my current playlist; curiosity keeps it replenished with new and shiny objects upon which to pour a mixture of my devotion and my hard earned cash. Then nostalgia comes along and mixes the whole thing up again, resurrecting albums I had forgotten I owned, by bands I had forgotten even existed. Nostalgia gives the same excited feeling of newness, but with the added benefit of knowing all the words. The distance of time has shorn the resurrected music of its embarrassment and any connection to the time I was first hooked on it. It has been cleansed.

That is why I store music on a big hard drive: one visit to that is far cheaper than a visit to any record shop anywhere in the world, and I always leave with a bag full of dusty old ‘vinyl’ to pore over.

The amount of music I buy online – delivered straight to my listening device of choice, and stored in the cloud for ease of access anywhere I go – makes me shocked when I hear that digital sales have still not utterly crushed sales of physical music formats. I find it a hindrance when I have to buy a CD. So many people, so many headphones, so many piles of CDs, all destined for landfill at some point.

Digital music is the ultimate disposable musical format, and perfect for the cyclical music listener like myself. Will that in itself be replaced by streaming, with people walking along the street listening to Spotify and the like, rather than saving such things for Wi-Fi? Or are they already doing it, and I just sound like a dinosaur, clinging on to mp3 like the vinyl purists of (supposedly) yore? You tell me.

So what of me leaving the house? I always think of other people as fundamentally unknowable, and I think I’m happy that they are that way. But it doesn’t mean I am any less curious about their tastes in music. Is that old lady listening to The Grateful Dead or Josh Groban? Is that young man listening to music or some podcast about sporting things, and tedious shite like that? I will never know.